AMSTERDAM (JTA) — A rabbi born in prestate Israel fighting extradition from Holland over alleged sex crimes told a Dutch daily that he is a Holocaust survivor.
Eliezer Berland, 77, who fled Israel after several women and one minor complained he had sexually assaulted them, made the claim in an interview with the Dutch Volkskrant daily, the interviewing journalist told JTA. Various official biographies of Berland contain no reference to the Holocaust.
Volkskrant reporter Harmen Bockma interviewed the charismatic Berland, dubbed “The Sex Rabbi” by the Dutch media, ahead of a court hearing Thursday in Amsterdam on Israel’s request that the Jerusalem rabbi be extradited.
The Dutch Justice Ministry supported Berland’s extradition, rejecting arguments by his lawyer, who said Berland is innocent, too ill to stand trial and that Israel lacks jurisdiction. A court in Schiphol is scheduled to rule on his case next month.
“He told me he was born in Israel but traveled to Germany to visit relatives and ended up in Buchenwald in 1943,” Bokma told JTA on Thursday. “He recalled sleeping on the cold concrete floor and said that he still suffers from pain in his legs as a result.”
The interview was published a day after International Holocaust Memorial Day. The commemoration, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, received considerable coverage in the Netherlands.
Zvi Mark, a scholar of Hasidic movements at Bar-Ilan University who knows Berland and his family history, told JTA that he was not aware of any biographical detail that suggests Berland is a Holocaust survivor.
“To the best of my knowledge, this account is unfounded,” Mark told JTA.
In the interview for Volkskrant, Berland, who belongs to the Breslov Hasidic sect and whose Shuvu Bonim community in Israel comprised several hundred followers, also said he was being persecuted in Israel because of his favorable attitudes toward Palestinians.
Berland was apprehended in Amsterdam in September during a layover at Schiphol Airport on his way from South Africa to Ukraine. Since fleeing Israel in 2012, he has lived in the United States, Morocco, Zimbabwe and Switzerland.
Several dozen devout followers from Israel followed Berland and settled in the Netherlands to be near their spiritual leader.